[Originally published May 31, 2013]

“I thought archaeology would be simple,” said one young woman. “I mean, I’m working with the dead. What could be complicated?” The roomful of Quebec archaeologists – and even the handful of representatives from various Indigenous communities – joined her in an ironic laugh. The truth, as they all knew, is that there is little that is more complicated – or contentious – than the study of prehistoric societies and ancient artifacts in Canada. Indeed, the practice is often fraught with tension between Indigenous peoples and predominantly white scientists around a tangled knot of issues.

What this gathering of people found through their discussion, however, is that archaeology has the potential not to dig deeper divides, as has happened in the past, but to build bridges – creating respect and common ground across cultures; bridging worldviews and disciplines to enable new insights; and supporting meaningful connections within communities.

The event was part of the annual conference of the Association of Archaeologists of Quebec (AAQ). At the initiative of McGill University archaeologists Nicolas Cadieux and Jennifer Bracewell, fifty people had come together for a session titled: “Archaeology in service of Indigenous peoples?” Behind that question were several more: Is it? Should it be? Could it be?

This was an important conversation for the archaeology profession in Quebec. But there were also larger implications. The conference coincided with Montreal’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, in which Native people shared stories of abuse in residential schools designed to eradicate their culture. To add to the significance, the conference took place in Oka, where armed conflict had begun in 1990 between the Mohawk Nation and the town of Oka over the expansion of a golf course onto a Mohawk cemetery. The crisis is still very present in Quebec’s collective consciousness.

My colleague, Julie Bourbonnais, and I had been invited to facilitate this conversation, which I was surprised to learn was the first such discussion at an AAQ gathering, at least in an official capacity. Two reasons were offered in explanation for this:

  • First, Quebec archaeology is a young discipline, with the first generation of professionals only now approaching retirement age. In the early years, those pioneers were firmly focused on the fight for Quebec programs to be recognized within Canada. They were also guided by the positivist scientific method of the 1970s, which left little room for alternative interpretations of the past. Now, a new crop of younger scientists is coming in with fresh perspectives and questions, and they’re ready to look more deeply at how the discipline could and should be practiced.
  • Second, in recent years, Native peoples have gained a stronger voice than they’ve had in centuries. As a result, they’re more and more able to block incursions on their lands, their rights and their values. They’re also in a better position to collaborate as true partners in projects that serve a wide variety of interests. What is more, archaeology is increasingly viewed by Indigenous communities as a tool to reassert their sovereignty, as well as their relations to their past and to their lands.

With all of this as backdrop to the afternoon’s conversation, Julie and I felt it would be important to support a sense of shared exploration among the fifty people gathered. To this end, we arranged the chairs in a large circle, adding a second outer circle as the number of participants grew. We then invited the participants to find another person and share the story of the first time they remember being fascinated by the distant past. Our goal, as we explained, was to invite them to listen during the rest of the session not only as members of a profession or of a community, but as human beings. As soon as our instructions were complete, the room burst into an excited clamour, as people eagerly shared their personal stories. Jennifer later shared how pleased she was at the level of openness and connection this two minute activity created.

From the inner circle, then, the larger conversation started with four stories:

  • Claude Kistabish, the man who, at age 49, became the first Anishinapè archaeologist. (“In my community, they see me differently now,” he explained with a light-hearted laugh. “Now they call me Indiana Jones.”)
  • Michelle Bélanger, Director of the Abenaki museum that offered hands-on archaeology training to a cohort of Indigenous youth and, in the process, helped the community reconnect with their history and culture – and each other. She was joined by one of the young people, Mathieu O’Bomsawin Gauthier, who gave a compelling account of his experience.
  • Jean-Christophe Ouellet, the young Quebecois archaeologist who was proud to discover original, ground-breaking material in a remote region of Québec’s north shores, and even more proud that it was made possible by the relationships he’d built within an Innu community.
  • And Dwayne Stacy, the social studies teacher from Kahnawà:ke Survival School who overcame many obstacles to give his students an experience of archaeology and its lessons from the past.

Equipped with insights and inspiration from these stories, the group together explored the question, “What would it look like if archaeology were in service of Indigenous peoples? And what would that make possible?”

One man voiced the frequently held sentiment that archaeology, like any science, should be in service of all humanity, not just one part of the population. “History doesn’t belong to anyone,” he said. “It’s for everyone.” But through the discussion that followed, the group seemed to conclude that it has to be both – that science can never be fully divorced from human context, and that the means are as important as the end. This was an important shift in perspective.

Michelle Bélanger offered her opinion that archaeology in service of Indigenous peoples would look something like the Abenaki museum.  Everyone involved needs “to be aware that it’s a community project,” with broad consultation and participation, she suggested. Another archaeologist, Geneviève Trayvaud, commented on why that might be important to an Indigenous community. She gave the example of Odanak, a town with a written history – but one that had been authored by three French Canadian monks. Their account is clearly tainted by their own assumptions, she explained. “The community needs to embrace archaeology as a means to re-appropriate their own history.”

The conversation then shifted to the question of whose perspective would be judged correct – science’s or the oral histories and traditions of First Nation’s communities. As an illustration of this divide, just before the start of our session a local man brought a very short version of his people’s creation story and gave Jennifer permission to read it out loud to the group. The day before, he had attended a public session by Claude Chapdelaine entitled: “At the junction of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers: A focal point of people and ideas through millennia of First Nations history.” The local man explained to Jennifer that he disagreed with the speaker’s interpretations. “There’s much more to our stories than he will ever know,” he said. “It takes over a week to hear the full story of our creation.”

Besides differences in worldview, the issue of whose perspective is “more true” also has legal ramifications, as archaeological interpretations are used either to support or to dispute Indigenous land claims.

“Could archaeologists just gather the data, guarding and protecting it without interpreting it?” wondered one participant. Michelle again commented: “Our museum has 8,000 artifacts but no one in the community is qualified or able to document them.” To this, Jean-Christophe added: “The archaeologist has a responsibility to interpret.”

From there, the group seemed to move toward the conclusion that the solution is to live with – and possibly even embrace – multiple interpretations. “You can try to prove [your perspective] to [Indigenous people],” offered Dwayne lightly. “But they might not like it. You’re trying to say that they’re wrong.” Along the same lines, André Costopoulos, another archaeologist from McGill University, told the story of his first experience working in Kahnawà:ke in 2003. His team had arrived for a dig and quickly attracted a crowd of suspicious visitors. They were unable to conduct their work, until a Chief arrived and gave them permission to continue. “Say what you have to say about what you find,” the Chief pronounced. “The government will say what they have to say. And we will say what we have to say.” “It’s a study of the past but done in the present, with the present context,” explained André. “We have to give our voice, but beyond that there are others who will have their interpretations and agendas.”

Apparently, this extends to different disciplines, too. Daniel Chevrier raised the point that history, anthropology, linguistics and biology all have their own interpretations that can be woven richly together. “It’s possible, but complicated,” he said. “It’s all about the common will to collaborate and to reconcile differences.”

Differences in perspective are not all that require reconciliation, of course. Dwayne explained what everyone there knew: “In the past, a lot of stuff has been taken from Native people. It’s made a lot of people upset.” Indeed, there are countless stories of archaeology being practiced with a shocking lack of sensitivity, if not with outright immorality.

How, then, can today’s archaeologists proceed with greater care?

First, build a relationship with the local people,” Dwayne advised. “First, be accepted. You can take stuff, but are you bringing it back to us? It can be in ten years, but do bring it back.”

André proposed that there are three ways of practicing archaeology: you can work in a community (where you come in, take things and leave); you can work for a community (in which case you are constrained); or you can work with a community.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about working with an Indigenous man who knew the land and the community’s oral history and was able to take André to a site that was rich with artifacts. While they were there, André spotted a nearby natural terrace that, based on his experience elsewhere, he knew would likely contain further artifacts. The two men helped each other, and both learned something in the process.

Similarly, Claude explained that, although his people have their own stories and truths, “We help archaeology. We know where to go. Our collective memory is strong.”

To close this part of the discussion, André recounted the question a Native elder had once asked him: “If you can’t have a good relationship with the people, how can you have a good relationship with the land?”

Moving forward, the group noted that there are structural obstacles to an archaeology that is truly in service to indigenous needs.

For example, most communities don’t have a museum and don’t have the capacity to store their artifacts. This observation prompted a burst of brainstorming: what if there were a traveling museum exhibit? If one community can’t sustain it, maybe several can together.

The group also noted a need for infrastructure in service of education – something other than museums. “What if there were ‘ambassadors’?” someone proposed. People who spread the word about the value of archaeology? There was universal agreement that those ambassadors should most of all work to engage young people, who are often very interested in archaeology. In response to this, several in the group lamented the fact that it’s hard to attract Native young people because they often get paid so much more to work for local industries (typically extraction or tobacco companies). Someone suggested that projects could get sponsored financially by those companies (or perhaps their rivals) as a way for the companies to gain favour in their host communities.

Beyond museums and education, the group also discussed the need for some kind of infrastructure to support dialogue, learning and collaboration both within Native communities and between them. Similarly, they envisioned a network to connect archaeologists and communities.

It seemed that such an infrastructure could be quite simple – at least at first. For example, Dwayne shared his intention to create an informal get-together within his community, posting an invitation on Facebook for anyone who’s interested to meet at a local coffee shop. In this way, he also hopes to “find someone to be in charge,” he said. “There should be a Chief with authority over this stuff.” Such clear authority would support the development of policies related to the ownership and treatment of historical artifacts. As it stands, “There are no rules [in our community],” Dwayne said. This is another aspect of the need for infrastructure.

In closing the session, Nicolas wondered why Association members were not made aware of an existing protocol for doing archaeological studies in Indigenous communities. In preparing for this session, he had discovered the document, which was developed by First Nations groups in 2005 (see below). Why wasn’t this part of the core guidance for the practice of archaeology in Quebec? No one in the room had an answer.

Daniel then wondered, with evident disappointment, why more of the “old guard” of the Association hadn’t chosen to participate in this session. Though he agreed that “the way we think of archaeology has to change,” he didn’t see this trend in the majority of the profession. He also cautioned that it’ll be harder than the group seemed to think it would be.

Still, the feeling in the room was extremely positive. Fifty people had gathered to hear multiple stories of archaeology conducted – not in or for but with host communities. Together, these fifty had envisioned meaningful reconciliation between cultures, worldviews and disciplines. Together, they had contributed to the work of building connection, dialogue and learning. For all of this, there was gratitude – and hope.

Existing protocol for doing archaeological studies in indigenous communities, developed by First Nations groups in 2005:

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